5 Republican candidates pushing idea for tax relief

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

April 30, 2006|By LARRY CARSON

Five Republican candidates for County Council are uniting to push a new idea for property tax relief, though Democrats and at least one other Republican are not enthused.

Conceived by Greg Fox, a western county District 5 GOP candidate, the proposal would allow people who sell a home in Howard County and then buy another in the county to avoid paying taxes on the full value of their new abode.

The idea is to allow people to move a portion of their protection under the county's 5 percent assessment cap from their old home to the new one, though full details have not been developed.

Democrats criticized the lack of details, and they said the proposal is a political stunt. But the five Republican candidates are enthusiastic about it.

"We're pretty excited," said Tony Salazar, a candidate in District 1, covering Elkridge and Ellicott City.

Fox and fellow candidates Salazar, Gina Ellrich (District 2), Donna Thewes (District 3) and Tom D'Asto (District 4), say their proposal would promote more sales of lower-priced units, freeing them for working families and boosting revenue. It would also allow more seniors to downsize without worrying as much about the higher taxes on a new retirement residence. The group claims the idea would not cost the county revenue or promote development.

In an example of the concept, the group said that if residents paying taxes on $300,000 of assessed value sold that home for $400,000 and moved to a $500,000 house, they could transfer $100,000 of cap protection with them. That means they would pay property taxes on $400,000 instead of the new house's real retail value. Based on county tax rates, that would reduce the property tax bill by about $1,000.

County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who is running for county executive, is not among the group promoting the idea, but he called it a "creative, out-of-the-box" notion. "I want to take some time to collect data and determine the fiscal impact," before deciding whether to support it, he said at a fundraising breakfast Thursday for Wayne Livesay, another Republican District 5 council candidate.

Republican Charles C. Feaga, the current District 5 councilman and a Livesay backer, disapproved, saying that making the assessment cap protection portable would require more administrative bureaucracy. "I think their energies would be better put toward pushing for a lower assessment cap," Feaga said.

Feaga sponsored a bill to lower the county's cap to 4 percent, which passed, but County Executive James N. Robey vetoed it. Livesay said he had not seen the proposal.

Democrats criticized the plan as a half-formed, potentially costly notion.

"It's very short on details," said Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "To put something like this out without really knowing the effect it might have is dangerous and smells more of a stunt than anything else."

Don Dunn, the lone Democrat running in District 5, said the idea is "ridiculous" because it would mean more real estate sales, thus fueling the new-home market and promoting development - something the Republicans deny.

"What we need to do for seniors is to allow them to age in place and not shuffle them around," Dunn said, adding that the idea would also encourage housing speculation by investors.

Courtney Watson, a Democrat running in District 1, also was critical.

"Without any supporting data, it is impossible to evaluate it," she said.

Fox said he conceived the idea after thinking about how to keep Howard's seniors from moving out of the county as they retire. With lower taxes, perhaps more seniors would downsize to condominiums, making their homes available to new buyers, he thought. If more people move, the transactions would boost real estate transfer and recordation taxes and increase taxes paid on older homes.

"For all the people encouraged to do this, it will actually increase revenues," Fox said.

Flame of hope

Although long-shot candidates are not often rewarded with victory, there are exceptions that keep the flame of hope burning for people like Howard County's Jim Adams and C. Stephen Wallis.

Adams, 64, is no novice, embarking on his third try for the GOP nomination for District 5 County Council seat, covering the western county. The Catonsville native has lived near Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City for 28 years. He lost in 1998 and 2002 to former Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, now a state senator. Adams collected 191 votes his first time out, and 750 votes to Kittleman's 3,658 in 2002.

Wallis, 55, the principal of Harper's Choice Middle School, is considering a run for county executive, he said, but he will not make a final decision for several weeks. He also has not decided if he will remain a registered Republican, or switch to Democrat or independent.

Wallis said he has no particular ax to grind. He just wants to offer his long experience in public service to voters.

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